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One of the most challenging pieces of guidance to help stem the spread of the coronavirus has been advising people to limit in-person interactions to those they live with. For some, that means being stuck inside with only family members for weeks on end. For those who live alone, it means complete solitude at home.
Limiting close contact with others is the most important step in containing the number of infections. But sticking to those restrictions can carry a heavy mental health toll. Several countries have begun exploring the idea of “social bubbles,” which allow people to expand their groups beyond their household members to alleviate the strain of isolation.
Social bubbles are essentially partnerships between groups of people who all agree to limit their in-person contact to others within the group. This arrangement, in theory, could satisfy people’s social needs while adding only a small amount of infection risk.
New Zealand implemented a bubble system as part of its successful containment of the virus. The Belgian government is reportedly considering allowing citizens to create social groups of up to 10 people they can see without social distancing rules. Some provinces in Canada recently began to allow members of two separate households to join up in “double bubbles.” The U.K. government has said it may enact similar measures. While no formal rules around shared household bubbles exist in the U.S., some American families have joined forces to alleviate the strain of lockdown.
Why there’s debate
Advocates for social bubbles say letting people expand their circle of friends may be an important step in establishing a sustainable way of life amid the ongoing pandemic. Strict isolation, while the most effective means of containing the virus, may not be something most people can maintain much longer. Bubbles could provide the social nourishment people need — plus some much-needed help with day-to-day needs like shopping and childcare — with only a slight increase in risk, if members stay within their groups.
Bubbles may even prove necessary to avoid more dangerous outcomes if people become overwhelmed by “quarantine fatigue” and abandon distancing measures altogether, some psychologists say. “There must be a middle ground between all of us staying at home and all of us meeting the people we want in the ways we want to,” a British researcher studying the feasibility of bubbles told CNN. Contained social circles would also make it easier to limit isolated outbreaks before they spread to the broader population.
Skeptics of social bubbles argue that they may create more risk. The more people in a group, the more opportunities for someone to become infected. If someone does contract the virus, they risk passing it to a larger number of people. Social bubbles rely on a level of commitment that may be unrealistic to expect people to maintain over a long period of time, some argue.
Bubbles may be helpful only in limited circumstances, some argue, in which none of the members include essential workers who have to break the bubble to go to work or high-risk individuals like the elderly or the immunocompromised. Others say the idea has merit, but the U.S. hasn’t contained the coronavirus enough yet for bubbles to be effective.
Being part of a bubble may prevent people from even riskier behavior
“We know the longer distancing goes on, the more likely people are to want to try these kinds of things. It’s lower-risk than what people are doing haphazardly.” — Epidemiologist Dr. Amesh Adalja to Insider
Larger groups mean more risk
“It’s hard to guarantee that someone in the group isn’t going to be exposed. If they are, they are bringing that exposure to a larger group of people than they would if they were with only their own family.” — Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times
Bubbles would only work in certain circumstances
“People are going to have to be guided by what the situation is locally and who it is they are thinking about getting together with and what the individual risks may be in terms of people’s age and other health conditions,” — Infectious diseases expert Daniel Kuritzkes to Wall Street Journal
Bubbles with one untrustworthy member will be compromised
“Your bubble is only as strong as its weakest link. If one or more members of your group are interacting with people outside of your network, the bubble becomes less effective as a preventative measure. So, if you must, choose wisely. But if you can, stay home for now.” — Anagha Srikanth, The Hill
It’s a good idea, but more research is needed
“Until more research is done, it’s impossible to know whether gradually expanding the quarantine circle of trust beyond immediate households should be part of that conversation. But there’s something about the idea that goes instinctively with the grain of how many people will eventually want to emerge from hiding; not with a rush but gradually, nervously, and preferably in the company of those we love most.” — Gaby Hinsliff, Guardian
The U.S. doesn’t have testing capacity to keep bubbles safe yet
“I think we need to look at the data and let science guide us before we start making recommendations about socialization. … We need to have the ability to contact-trace, test and quarantine people who may be contacts of positive cases because that will be the only way to prevent large outbreaks from taking off again.” — Infectious diseases expert Dr. Krutika Kuppalli to CNN
Only the right mix of people can make an effective bubble
“The pandemic forces us into binary choices: You can probably join only one quaranteam at a time. And what you’re going into isn’t a friendship, but a partnership. You can be great friends with someone you would never even contemplate starting a business with. This is like that.” — Gideon Lichfield, MIT Technology Review
Bubbles won’t work if stay-at-home measures are lifted
“A full reopening of the economy and a complete return to work — something that some Americans are agitating for — would make the bubble a fairly pointless measure.” — Molly Olmstead, Slate
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